Parenting Teens When All They Want to Do Is Fight
Adolescence: when your teen’s thoughts and actions become difficult to comprehend, even more difficult to tolerate, and parenting teens becomes a figurative boxing match that tests who can last the longest.
Anusha Manjani, a clinical psychologist who works with teens and parents in Mumbai, says parents often understand the underlying reasons for adolescent behaviour without knowing how to deal with teenagers.
“The challenge is more in terms of responding appropriately to situations,” she says.
We spoke with Manjani about parenting teens, and she helped us compile a list of tips to manage parent-teen conflict. While the “don’ts” are good general rules, she says, the “do’s” are more flexible – less a script for fighting, than a set of strategies for how to handle teenagers that parents should apply as appropriate.
The Do’s parenting teens through an argument
Be on the same team.
It’s important to let your child know you’re not the enemy during parent-teen conflict, Manjani says, by trying to understand things from their perspective.
“This doesn’t mean you stop disciplining them,” Manjani says. “It simply means you start recognizing them as an individual who has their own opinions and respecting their point of view.”
For example, if money is a point of strife, consider sitting with your teen and discussing his or her financial needs to reach an amount of pocket money you both can agree on, instead of simply making the decision without input.
Listen and repeat.
Teens need to be heard, just like adults. When you’re in an argument with your teen, let her finish making her point without interruption before having your say.
Also, remember effective communication goes beyond simply understanding words; it entails deciphering the emotions that underlie the words, which teens may struggle to articulate. Consider paraphrasing what your child has said to avoid misunderstanding and to confirm you are listening. (“So, if I understand you correctly, you’re hurt by how your sister treats you when her friends are around?”)
If your teen becomes hostile during a discussion, stay calm and don’t abandon the conversation. Teens may use power tactics to get their way and, by observing your behaviour over time, they learn which buttons to push — anger, guilt, or even criticism. Communicate your point calmly even if you face resistance.
And on days when things get out-of-control and a yelling match feels imminent, the wisest thing to do is to hit pause, so you both can cool down — just make sure to revisit the conversation later, otherwise the conflict with your teen will never end.
Choose your words carefully.
When parenting teens, words can make or break a delicate situation. Asking questions and listening to your teen’s reasons can help you frame the right response. Even if his reasons seem improbable, or like excuses, don’t scoff at the explanation. Communicate that you understand, but you don’t agree – then explain why and focus on what he could do better the next time around. And don’t forget to ask how you can help.
Trying to exert authority where it’s unnecessary will only damage your credibility on more important issues. Some things just don’t need to descend into an argument, Manjani says.
“If you set a curfew for 10 pm, but your child’s friends live far away… it’s reasonable if he asks for an extension on his curfew,” she says.
Demonstrating you are a reasonable parent makes it more likely he will take you seriously the next time you enforce a rule – even one he feels is unreasonable.
Do share and talk about feelings.
“It’s important to express one’s feelings as a parent since this also sets an example for your child to discuss their feelings (with you),” Manjani says.
Make time and space for sharing, for discussing each of your days. If you’re feeling low or upset, share your emotions and their causes with your teen. Give him the sense that you care about him as an individual and want to have conversations about more than instructions and advice.
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The Don’ts of parenting teens through an argument
Don’t violate your teen’s privacy.
“If you think something is happening in your child’s life – say, if they’re in a relationship — don’t make assumptions or go through their personal belongings to find out,” Manjani says. “That’s a complete no-no. Reading diaries or even going through online accounts is a violation of your child’s privacy.”
Instead, build trust by asking him directly and initiating an open conversation.
Don’t be judgmental or use humiliation.
Immediate judgement (“I don’t think he’s good for you” or “She’s a bad influence”) in response to teens’ confidences will only cause them to clam up and keep their personal lives a secret. To avoid resentment and conflict, express your opinions in a neutral manner and let them make their own decisions.
Similarly, if you have a disagreement in a public place, avoid drawing attention to your teen’s errant behaviour. While it may be a knee-jerk reaction and seem like a quick fix, public humiliation only damages self-confidence in the long run.
Arguments peppered with “should have” and “could have” sound condescending to teens. If she missed her flight, saying, “You should have left home earlier,” does little to help the situation; she has probably already figured that out.
Instead, try to assess the scenario and look for solutions together. Talk immediate actions first (“What can you do now to solve this problem?”). Then frame lessons as solutions for the future (“Let’s talk about what went wrong so we can make sure this doesn’t happen again”). There’s no point rubbing it in; be constructive under the circumstances, and your teen is more likely to turn to you in moments of need.
Don’t use threats.
Threats are understandable, but seldom effective when parenting teens (or any age). Instead, try framing your request in a positive way; it’s the difference between, “Clean your cupboard, or you won’t get any pocket money,” and “You need to clean your cupboard; how can I help you find the time?”
Don’t belittle emotions.
When your teen comes to you with a complaint, however big or small, it’s an opportunity for you to be supportive and build a relationship of trust and empathy. Avoid phrases like, “You’re overreacting” or “I don’t see what the big deal is,” even if that’s your immediate response. Instead, acknowledge his or her problem and ask why he or she is, say, upset with a friend. You might find a bigger issue projected onto an inconsequential incident.
Finally, one last point to keep in mind: The way you address conflict in your parenting prepares teens for dealing with conflict in their lives as adults. Model the behaviour you want to see.